Right after the recall election was decided, Elizabeth Miller Wroblewski doffed her protest shirt and buttons.
“Whatever happens tomorrow, we have to start working together,” said the Madison parish administrator at St. Francis House Episcopal Student Center. “You’ve got to move ahead.”
Wroblewski’s reaction to the news of Gov. Scott Walker’s victory in Tuesday’s recall election was more serene than some.
“Democracy’s dead,” bellowed Mike Daly, a 39-year-old stay-at-home dad as he barged into a live feed from the scene by CNN reporter Ted Rowlands.
Daly got his interview on CNN, then explained that he was distraught because his two daughters, 1 and 4, will never live in a society where corporations don’t run the show.
“For the first time in my life, I don’t want to live here anymore,” he said. “It’s all about the money now.”
For anti-Walker activists who gathered at the state Capitol, election night started with the celebratory atmosphere of an old-time political rally, alive with music and dancing, and the promise of ousting the governor.
“I know you’re nervous. I know you’re scared,” called out Chris Reeder, who has led daily Solidarity Sing Alongs at the Capitol for the past 15 months in protest of Walker’s agenda. “I know you’re excited and hopeful.”
State worker Gigi Trebatoski was receiving texts from friends and family scattered around the country.
“They say they’re all watching, and they’re with us,” she said. “It’s pretty exciting.”
But through the magic of national news network projections, the recall race between Walker, a Republican, and his Democratic challenger, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, was called less than an hour after the polls closed, deflating the buoyant mood like a pin in a heart-shaped Mylar balloon.
“It’s so sad, I’m speechless,” said Brynna Otterson, a 22-year-old Winona State University student who hails from Verona.
Around her, the crowd looked stunned and dejected as a single funereal drumbeat hung in the air.
Some remained in denial.
“Barrett hasn’t lost,” said Ellie Connolly, a former Madison nurse, now an anti-Walker activist who lives near Superior. “Don’t be silly.”
One group was determined to stop the news of Walker’s win from spreading through corporate media outlets. Four young people who had traipsed through the crowd wearing comical bandit masks and carrying fake money bags, surrounded CNN’s Rowland during his newscast, which had the anti-Walker crowd in front of the Capitol as a backdrop. Then they waived their bags in front of him.
People nearby joined in shouts of “This is what democracy looks like!” and “Liar, liar, liar!” to drown him out, forcing the news crew to give up on a report from that spot.
“The corporate media doesn’t report the truth or the views of the people,” Ken Klipperstein of Madison said later in explaining the group’s tactic. He pointed to the false reports of weapons of mass destruction that were used by the Bush administration as a pretext for the war in Iraq as an example of the how corporate media is a tool used to distort the truth.
Even as other major news networks projected Walker as the winner, Ben Manski of the Liberty Tree Foundation exhorted the group not to give up hope. He blasted corporate media outlets for their rush to call the election.
“It’s a crime when an election is called before the majority of the votes are counted,” Manski said, then reminded the crowd of past elections that were called too early: presidential contests in Florida in 2000; and Ohio in 2008, and the Wisconsin Supreme Court election last year, where the winner wasn’t known for several days.
“Count every vote!” was a new rallying cry taken up by the crowd.
But even as the crowd chanted, Barrett was conceding the race. And when word of that dawned on the collective consciousness, the pent-up frustrations of the crowd came out.
“He gave up on us!” one woman yelled.
Then the appearance of a dozen or so Walker supporters enflamed emotions even further.
“Go home,” yelled one man. “Go celebrate somewhere else. You don’t have to rub it in.”
As the focus of the crowd’s anger turned toward the pro-Walker demonstrators, a wall of yellow-vested Capitol Police officers separated the two sides.
Seth Pulsfus of Poynette stoically held his “We Stand With Walker” sign high in the air as he was barraged with insults, but he didn't take the bait.
“I think what you’re seeing is the silent majority come out,” said the 35-year-old research and development manager. “I think a lot of people are absolutely sick of this.”
Eli Weichert, 18, of Columbus, held another pro-Walker sign. Asked to respond to complaints that he was rubbing salt in the wounds, the 18-year-old Army enlistee didn’t deny it.
“Well, they’re kind of sore losers at the same time,” he said. “I absolutely support the victor.”
Some in the crowd bitterly accepted the results.
“I’m a state worker. I’m pretty devastated,” said a woman who didn’t want to be named for fear of retribution. “But I don’t think it’s over. I think he’ll be indicted.”
She was referring to the possibility that Walker could be caught up in the net that has ensnared several of his former aides in a John Doe investigation into potentially illegal campaigning during Walker's stint as Milwaukee County Executive, a fact that Barrett made central to his campaign. Walker has set up a legal defense fund in response to the investigation.
As the reality of the Walker win began to sink in Tuesday night, people grew more willing to talk about it. The prospect of Walker’s continued governorship is scary, given the targets of his budget cuts, said Wendy Prosise of Madison. “I know teachers, I know laborers, I know women, I know veterans, I know disabled people, I know everybody he’s hurting,” she said.
Ron Pederson of Madison, a union worker at Oscar Mayer, has family who supported Walker, but still can’t believe that so many voters were “foolish enough or selfish enough,” to support him. “The messages shouldn’t be ‘Look at what they’ve got that I don’t have.' It should be, 'This is what we all should have,’” he said.
Now re-elected, Walker will “advance his extreme right-wing agenda,” said Craig Spaulding, a member of the International Workers of the World. “He’ll punish everyone who does not follow lock-step on his agenda.”
CNN’s Rowlands, who is originally from Madison and is now based in Chicago, said he understood the frustration of the people at the rally. “They poured their hearts and souls into this for 16 months. To come up short is disappointing.”
But the long political upheaval has changed people here, Rowlands said.
“It’s a different Wisconsin,” he said. “It’s hard for people to stand in each other’s shoes.”